Cooking with Fresh Grape Vine Leaves


Stuffed grape leaves --- also known as dolmas or dolmades, or dawaly --- are so delicate and delicious!  Every Middle Eastern country has its own variations of these rice-stuffed rolls.  Lebanese cooks may use a little tomato in their recipes, but elsewhere it is more traditional not to overwhelm their subtle flavor with garlic, tomato, vinegar or other strong flavors.


This guideline will show you how to select and prepare either fresh or regular preserved grape leaves with a variety of fillings and sauces.  Cooking methods include oven, steaming, or microwave.



Using bottled/preserved leaves


    * Quality and size vary, try several brands.

    * Leaves should be completely covered by brine, check the jar before you buy.

    * Leaves keep their color best if stored in a dark cupboard.

    * 16 ounce jar usually contains about 60 usable leaves in 3 bundles.

    * Even commercially prepared leaves need to be blanched and chilled before

         use or they are too salty and strong-flavored.



Selecting fresh leaves


Now, I knew those Greek grandmothers did not buy their leaves in the store, but I couldn't find any directions for using fresh leaves.  So, here I include real directions on how to use fresh leaves.


    * Usually gathered in early summer.

    * Whether you are going to eat them fresh or preserve them, select young

         whole, medium leaves (small = too thin;  large or sunburned = too tough)

         with a good light green color and no holes.

    * Any type grape is OK. Get from unsprayed plants; most sprays are toxic,

          because regulations don't count on anyone eating the leaves.

    * About 1 1/2 pounds of fresh leaves are the same as 1 jar of preserved leaves.


In response to further questions on harvesting fresh leaves:


    * Medium size is whatever that is for your plants; too small and they tear up, too big and they are TOUGH AND CHEWY.  Drying out/ droughty conditions also toughen the leaves, they are tenderest and best when the water supply to the plants has been steady and sufficient.


    * Timing- best season is when they have just reached medium size.  The earlier in the growing season the better.  The leaves thicken and toughen the longer they are in the sun, just like our old folks here in Texas.  However, a handful for a spontaneous dinner could probably be picked any time: blanch a little longer if you are suspicious about toughness.


    * Best time of day?  My gardening friends tell me early in the day.  You have to think about protecting the grapes when taking the leaves: look at the bunch and the way the leaves shade it and try to take those that are not directly shading the cluster.  You might want to have a major leaf-picking of any eligible leaves just after you pick your grapes.



To use or freeze fresh grape leaves


These only last about six months in the freezer.


Blanch loose, a dozen at a time, by placing in strong salted boiling brine, 1 cup salt to 4 cups water.  Bring water back to a boil and then remove leaves immediately with a skimmer or pancake turner; and then plunge the leaves immediately into cold/ice water.  Drain, dry with paper towels or shake dry.  Don't omit this, it is done to set the color and also prevents enzyme action while freezing.


You can do this blanching in the microwave.  It takes about 10 minutes at full power to bring the brine to a boil, then 2 minutes at full power for each dozen leaves.  If you are reducing salt, you can do this in plain boiling water.


Use immediately, or stack in rolls of six, roll from the side and tie; wrap in airtight plastic and freezer bags.  Use as soon as thawed because they don't keep too well after freezing.



To preserve/can fresh leaves


This is a multi-step process: making bundles of leaves, blanching, covering bundles with brine, and processing the jars.


Prepare bundles by stacking 6 to 20 blanched leaves of the same size.  Put the shiny side UP.  Line up the stem ends.  Roll from the side.  Tie bundles with real cotton string, not poly or synthetic.


You can blanch loose and then roll [see the frozen leaves blanching direction above], but if you are going to preserve them, I think it is easier to make smallish bundles and then blanch the bundles, no more than 4 at a time, for up to 3 minutes.  Turn occasionally while boiling to blanch evenly.


Pack rolls tightly in sterilized canning jars, jars all the same size, gently bending rolls if necessary to get the ends below the shoulder of the jar.


Make brine: 1/4 cup kosher salt or pickling salt per quart of water, boil at least five minutes, and keep it hot.  Fill the jars to cover all bundles with at least 1/2 inch of brine above the bundles.  You need a little more than 1 cup brine per jar.


Pour hot brine to fill the jars.  Run a stainless steel table knife or spoon (not iron or steel) around the edge of each jar to get out air bubbles.


Final processing: Review canning process in any standard recipe book -- you need jars, giant pot, etc.  You have the sterilized jars filled with rolled leaves covered with brine.  Put on the sterilized two piece lids, keep your fingers off the rim and inside of the jar and the lid.  Place on a rack in a pot containing boiling water to cover to 1/2 the depth of the jars.  Fill with boiling water to 2" above the jars, cover the pot, bring to a boil and boil hard 15 minutes for quarts, 10 minutes for pints.  Cool the jars and store in a cool dark place.


In the olden days, they didn't do the final processing for any kind of brine pickles.  Much quicker, but you'd lose some jars to molds.






All leaves require some initial steps


Whether you use fresh or preserved, first blanch: plunge into boiling water, bring to boil, plunge into cold/ ice water. Then you stuff and cook.



Notes on Traditional Stuffings


    * Always chop your onions, not grate or puree; it improves the texture of the filling. The meat is raw.


    * Tip on rice preparation: Soak the rice 10 minutes in hot water and drain, but don't precook. Or else, fry the raw rice in olive oil for at least 5 minutes after you saute the onion.


    * If you don't like onion, use diced celery or fennel instead.


Lenten / vegetarian fillings, meat-free, have rice, onion, pine nuts, currants and are  traditionally served room temp or cold, with yogurt sauce.



Armenian Yallanchee


Armenian style stuffed grape leaves, called Yallanchee, are a cold appetizer of grape leaves wrapped around seasoned rice, but without meat.  This is differs from the grape leaves of Greek cuisine that usually include chopped meat.  


This recipe makes about 70 rolls:


                2   large                    onions, chopped fine  (sometimes I use a cup

                                                    of finely chopped green onions and tops)

             1/4   cup                      olive oil

                1   cup                      short grain rice, pre-prepped, see note above

                1   teaspoon             allspice, ground (or mix with cinnamon)

             4-8   Tablespoons       finely chopped fresh dill and/or parsley

                                                salt and pepper to taste

                                                sliced lemon between layers


optional additions may include:


             1/4   cup                      pine nuts or cooked split peas

             1/4   cup                      currants, raisins or chopped prunes

             1/4   teaspoon             ground saffron




Cypriot or Greek style stuffed grape leaves


Cypriot or Greek style stuffed grape leaves are made with rice, onion and ground lamb or beef.  They are traditionally served warm or room temp with egg-lemon sauce.


This recipe makes about 60 rolls:


                1   medium              onion, chopped fine (sometimes I use a cup

                                                     of finely chopped green onions and tops)

                2   Tablespoons       olive oil (for sautéing onions)

          1 1/2   pound                  ground meat

             1/2   cup                      rice, pre-prepped, see below

             2-4   Tablespoons       fresh mint, finely chopped

             2-4   Tablespoons       parsley, finely chopped

                                                salt and pepper to taste


Persians, Lebanese and some Greeks might add:


             1/2   teaspoon             ground cinnamon


Usual process: sauté onion and green herbs very briefly, stir in soaked rice, raw meat and other ingredients. Place each leaf shiny side DOWN, stuff and roll.  Use between one teaspoon and one Tablespoon of stuffing, depending on size of leaf.  Keep in mind that it expands slightly while cooking.



Stuffing and Rolling


    * Stuff with shiny side down.

    * Trim the stem off -- it pokes a hole in the roll while cooking.  If the center vein is very thick, some folks shave it down.

    * Most traditional to roll leaf from stem end to tip, after folding in the sides.  But you can roll side to side if the center vein is too thick, it makes center vein easier to work around.

    * Pack into cooking pan seam side down, just touching.  Two or three layers is fine.  It is very difficult to cook evenly if you make more than four layers of rolls.


Place a small spoonful of prepared stuffing at the stem end of the leaf, roll about one half turn. Fold in the two sides.  Continue rolling to the tip of the leaf.  The package should be firm, but not tight, as the stuffing will expand while cooking.




You can bake, steam or microwave these.  Aluminum foil or pot may discolor (darken) the leaves.  For either method, line pan with open extra leaves to prevent sticking.  Lebanese cooks sometimes use sliced tomatoes for this.  Cover the top layer with other open leaves.  You line the dish or pan with some torn leaves, place the rolled leaves with the seam side down in layers, no more than 4 layers deep.  Cover with a few more loose leaves.  Then put a heavy plate or lid right on top of the rolls to keep them in place. Finally, pour the hot water/broth and lemon juice or oil over the whole arrangement.


To Bake: Cover tightly.  Oven is preheated to 350° F.  Pour on your 2 to 4 cups broth/ water.  Bake 30-60 minutes, depending on size and whether the broth was hot when you started.


To Steam: Put a small heavy plate over the top of the rolls to keep them in place.  60 rolls use about 2 to 4 cups broth or water.  Bring to simmer, lower heat, steam 40-60 minutes covered for usual small size.  It can take longer if the rolls are large or leaves tough.  You can use the broth you drain off to make your sauce.


To Microwave: Make 2 dozen at a time.  Prepare the stuffing using the "sauté the rice" method.  Put the rolls in a SINGLE layer just touching each other in a 9x11 glass pan.  Add 1 1/2 cups broth or water, cover tightly with microwave-safe plastic wrap.  Microwave 10-12 minutes at 700 watts.  If your oven is high wattage (1000 watts), reduce the power level to 70%.


All methods:  cool in the broth, drain and serve.  They keep about a week in the refrigerator.  If you drain and chill them, you may want to pour a little olive oil and lemon juice over all.


Seasoning variations for the broth/ water: some cooks pour 1/4 -1/2 cup olive oil over the full pan after the broth is added, and some folks add 1/4 cup lemon juice to the liquid, or slices of lemon between the layers.




Recipes for Sauces


These sauces contain eggs and dairy products. They should be refrigerated immediately if not being served at once. They can be reheated.


Cucumber and yogurt


                2   cup                      plain yogurt

                1   large                    cucumber, grated and drained

             1-2   Tablespoons       fresh dill or mint, chopped

             2-3   cloves                 fresh crushed garlic are sometimes added.


Mix together and let stand a few hours.



Egg and lemon, Greek style


                4                              egg yolks, beaten till thick and lemony

                4   Tablespoons       fresh lemon juice

                2   Tablespoons       hot pan broth


Beat yolks, beat in lemon juice, and then carefully beat in enough hot broth to thicken slightly.



Egg and lemon, Cypriot style


                2   Tablespoons       butter

                2   Tablespoons       flour

          1 1/2   cups                    chicken broth or lamb stock

             1-2   Tablespoons       lemon juice

                2   large                    eggs, beaten

                                                salt and pepper to taste


Make just like a standard white sauce, mixing the eggs into the last half of the broth before you add it.




Serving traditions


Traditionally served warm or room temp in portions of 3 to 5 small rolls with sauce for appetizers. A glass of retsina is a pleasant addition.





Refrigerate, covered, with a little olive oil to keep them moist, for up to 5 days.